Recommendation Letter Guidelines and Length

Mature businessman working at his desk
••• alvarez / Getty Images

How long should a recommendation letter be? What should you write about the person you are recommending? What's the best way to format a reference letter? How should you send the reference?

When you are writing reference letters, the quality of your letter is important because it reflects the quality of your recommendation. All recommendation letters, whether for employment or academic admissions, should be well-written, properly formatted and proofread for grammar and typographical errors.

Whether you are writing a reference letter for a student, an employee or colleague, or a friend, you can follow these general guidelines for writing, organizing, and formatting your letter or email message.

Recommendation Letter Length, Format, and Font

Before You Start Writing the Letter: Ask the candidate to send you his resume, transcript, CV, or any other materials that will help you accurately describe the person. You may also ask for a description of the position for which he is applying, and information about the company. The more information you have, the easier it will be to write a strong recommendation.

Length: A letter of recommendation should be more than one or two paragraphs; a letter this short suggests you either do not know the person well or do not fully endorse them. However, you want to keep the letter concise and focus on a few key points, so avoid writing more than one page.

 Three or four paragraphs that explain how you know the person and why you are recommending them is an appropriate length.

Format: A letter of recommendation should be single-spaced with a space between each paragraph. Use about 1" margins for the top, bottom, left, and right of the page, and align your text to the left (the alignment for most documents).

Font: Use a traditional font such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri. The font size should be between 10 and 12 points, so it's easy to read. Adjusting the font size is a good way to keep your letter to a single page.

Edit: Be sure to read through your letter before sending it. You can have someone else edit the letter, but conceal the candidate's name to preserve his privacy.

How to Organize a Reference Letter

Header: Unless the candidate gives you a form on which to write your recommendation, you should write the reference as a formal letter. A reference letter should begin with both you and the employer's contact information (name, address, phone number, email) followed by the date. If this is an email rather than an actual letter, include your contact information at the end of the letter, after your signature.

Salutation: Begin your letter with "Dear Mr./Ms. Last Name." If you do not know the employer's last name, simply write, "Dear Hiring Manager." If the candidate is applying to an academic program, you can write "Dear Admissions Committee."

Introduction: Explain your relationship with the person for whom you are writing the letter. You may include how long you have known the person.

Then explain why you are writing the letter. Be sure to include the name of the company, job, school, or opportunity for which the person is applying. For example, "I have been James Smith's supervisor at XYZ Company for the past five years. I am pleased to recommend him for the position of head accountant at ABC Company.

Body: In the body of the letter, include specific information about the candidate's personal characteristics (creativity, patience, confidence, etc.), specific skills (excellent communication skills, organizational skills, etc.). Be as specific as possible. Provide examples of times when the person displayed these qualities; perhaps he demonstrated his communication skills during a presentation, or he demonstrated his leadership abilities when he spearheaded a new project.

Try to describe qualities and skills that relate to the specific job, school, or opportunity. For example, if the person is applying for a job as a manager, focus on the person's leadership and communication skills.

Closing: Summarize the points made in the body of your letter in your closing paragraph. Clearly state that you recommend the candidate for the position he is seeking.

Signature: End the letter with your signature, handwritten, followed by your typed name. If this is an email, simply include your typed name, followed by your contact information.

More About Recommendations: Reference Letter Samples | How to Write a Letter of Recommendation